What can we learn from the ACT Scientist of the Year?

19 June 2019

As nominations come to a close for the 2019 ACT Scientist of the Year award, we turned to the 2018 winner for her words of wisdom.

Despite almost not applying, Dr Rose Ahlefeldt was awarded the prestigious title of ACT Scientist of the Year for 2018.

“A colleague of mine suggested I apply, because it’s an award about doing research that benefits the ACT and also about outreach.”

Seeing the opportunity as a way to practice applying for future research roles, Dr Ahlefeldt updated her CV and threw her hat (or nomination) in the ring.

The annual award recognises up-and-coming scientists with high research potential to act as science ambassadors in the ACT. If nominated for the role they are tasked with inspiring students to pursue STEM careers, given more opportunities to share their research, and are assisted in funding their research with a $30,000 grant.

A quantum physicist and Research Fellow at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering, Dr Ahlefeldt works to improve quantum memory.

We need better memory to build improved quantum computers, which are able to solve problems that current computers can’t.

“Things like improving encryption, artificial intelligence, better understanding chemicals – proteins, molecules – and how they interact with the environment.”

To do this, she uses rare earth ions in crystals.

Quantum information begins as pulses of light, and crystals can be used to store this ‘information’.

Dr Ahlefeldt looks in detail at the properties of the crystals and how they interact with light, so that we can find the best ones for storing quantum memory.

At the moment we don’t have a way to store information as large as what is needed for quantum computers.

The ANU is a world leader in quantum physics, and Dr Ahlefeldt is at the forefront of research in quantum memory.

It’s crystal-clear why she was chosen for ACT Scientist of the year, and Dr Ahlefeldt says it’s made her research far more discernible.

“It’s largely been about becoming a lot more visible, within the ANU and as a scientist in the ACT community.”

The critics can be pretty tough though.

Speaking about a recent workshop with year nine and ten students, where she took them through some of the ‘basics’ of quantum physics, Dr Ahlefeldt says:

 “In question time they just absolutely grilled me. Asking me about how exactly how do we make these things, whether we’ll be able to build useful technology with them…

“It’s surprising to me how interested they were, and how good they are at grasping the concepts. Quantum physics is not that easy to explain.”

Overall, Dr Ahlefeldt says it has been a more than worthwhile experience, and created opportunities which would have been extremely difficult to find on her own.

“Often you just simply don’t know that the opportunities exist.”

If you love grilling physicists, why not consider becoming one.